Thomas Jefferson, for one, took apart the Bible while he built the country.

As author of the Declaration of Independence, principal lobbyist behind the Bill of Rights, governor of Virginia, U.S. minister to France, secretary of state, vice-president, and two-term President of the United States, certainly no one contributed more to the establishment of this nation than Thomas Jefferson.

And Jefferson’s many talents were not limited to the realm of politics. He was one of the foremost architects of his day, a violin player of chamber orchestra quality, master of three foreign languages, horticulture expert, university founder and president, prolific writer, and even an inventor. No wonder Jefferson’s face is carved on Mount Rushmore and his image is honored on our currency. But does this favored political father, as some Christians may suppose, make a good spiritual father?

Jefferson, like his presidential predecessor John Adams, and other colonial leaders like Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine, was a deist. As such, Jefferson believed God to be a “fabricator of all things … a superintending power to maintain the universe in its course and order.” But Jefferson contended that “of the nature of the Being we know nothing.” To the deist, God was a great clockmaker who made the natural world, wound it up, and then left it on its own without further intervention.

Jefferson’s concept of a Christian was simply one who followed the teaching of Jesus. But the Jesus he professed to follow believed himself to be, according to Jefferson, only a man: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be, sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.…”

Rejecting the orthodox belief in the full deity of Christ, Jefferson also rejected the belief that part of Jesus’ purpose was to reveal God the Father to men. “[Jesus] has told us only that God is good and perfect, but has not defined him,” wrote Jefferson.

Historian Adrienne Koch capsulizes the universal understanding of historians on Jefferson’s view of Jesus Christ. “Jefferson was aiming to humanize the deified conception of Christ. He says again and again that Jesus must be understood only as a man, whose way of life was one unexcelled for integrity. Christ was first and foremost a man, but one of magnificent inspiration. His inspiration must not, however, be shrouded with mystical properties or with talk of supernatural origin and destiny.”

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Jefferson And The Bible

Far from believing the Scriptures to be the divinely inspired Word of God, Jefferson believed that in the Bible “the doctrines which he [Jesus] really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us, mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.

“They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.”

Thoroughly disgusted by what he viewed as the ignorance of the apostles and the corrupting influence of Saint Paul, Jefferson set out to purge the Gospels of the errors of their authors. In his mind, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were more often than not guilty of “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.”

Therefore, with scissors and paste in hand, while President of the United States, he sat down with a Bible and went to work “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book and arranging the matter,” so as to end up with “an extract from the Evangelist of the test of His morals, selecting only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own.”

He pasted his excerpts into a 46-page book he entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Amazingly, Jefferson managed to accomplish this monumental revision of the Gospels in but “two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day.” This book, soon after its publication, came to be referred to as the “Jefferson Bible.”

Jefferson was able to do such a task in so short a time because he felt that the “true” teachings of Jesus were “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” This confidence in his ability to “winnow the grain from the chaff” stemmed from his exalted view of human reason. “Your own reason,” Jefferson once wrote to a nephew, “is the only oracle given you by Heaven.”

What Jefferson’s reason revealed to him was that any reference to the miraculous or anything that would point to the divinity of Christ was to be rejected as false. His contempt for the divinity of the Lord and the miraculous is most easily seen in the texts he chose to “extract” from the Gospels.

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For example, his little book quotes Luke 2:46–48, in which Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple and ask why he had been away. But Jefferson cuts out Jesus’ response in verses 49 and 50 and doesn’t pick up the narrative again until verses 51 and 52, which describe Jesus’ return to Nazareth and his being subject to his parents. What Jefferson deletes as spurious is Jesus’ reply that he had to be about his Father’s business.

Jefferson then jumps to the story of John the Baptist. He quotes Mark 1:4 and Matthew 3:4 and 6 describing John, but steadfastly avoids surrounding verses that tell of John’s call to repentance and the declaration that John is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, the one preparing the way for the Messiah.

Next Jefferson quotes Matthew 3:13, which tells how Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized. But he intentionally avoids the following verses (14–17) in which, among other things, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove and God the Father declares Jesus to be his Son.

Inserting Luke 3:23, which states Jesus’ age when he began his public ministry, he then switches to John 2:12, which tells of Jesus journeying to Capernaum with his mother Mary and his disciples. In so doing Jefferson bypasses the temptation in the wilderness and the miracle at Cana. When describing the birth of the Lord, Jefferson edits out the appearance of the angel to the shepherds, the worshiping of the wise men, and Simeon’s declaration, shortly thereafter, that his eyes had seen the “salvation of God” in the baby Jesus.

Jefferson is quite consistent with this wholesale cutting of the Holy Scriptures. Other events in the life of our Lord that fall victim to his scissors are the Lord’s meeting with Nicodemus, in which Jesus told the Pharisee that he must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, and the Lord’s claim in John 3:16 that he is the only way to the Father. Most significantly, scriptures that tell of the bodily resurrection of Jesus are deleted. Jefferson reworks the Gospel accounts in such a way that Jesus stays totally human and quite dead.

Surprisingly; in 1890 Congress ordered 9,000 copies of Jefferson’s little book to be printed: 3,000 for the use of the Senate and the remaining 6,000 for the House of Representatives.

Jefferson’s pitifully low view of the Bible, the humanistic rejection of the supernatural, and his refusal to accept Jesus as God Incarnate certainly leave Thomas Jefferson outside the gates of historic Christian doctrine. Honesty requires an admission that this founding father was a heretic.

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Faith And Politics

Jefferson’s rejection of the historic Christian faith influenced his politics more than most of us would care to admit. Disdaining the understanding that the country’s system of laws was based on Christian beliefs, he rejected the notion “that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary is incontrovertible, to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed.”

Instead, Jefferson saw common law and the basic morality from which it stems as derived from human nature and not specific religious beliefs. Such a severing of public morality from Christian beliefs led Jefferson to declare that “the interests of society require observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree.”

Thus, Jefferson likely would have considered issues such as homosexual rights, abortion, and prayer in public schools to be improper areas for the government to address because they are not matters on which “all religions agree.”

Jefferson’s probable rejection of prayer in public schools can be easily seen in the way he, as founder, strove to separate so completely any religious influence from the University of Virginia. In a day when ministers were commonplace in the administration and daily chapel services were the norm, things were different at Jefferson’s school. “While Jefferson was rector it had no chaplain, no courses or professors of theology, and no chapel or other place for religious worship. An early proposal to set aside a room for religious worship was dropped, and a specific request to hold religious services in university buildings on Sunday was denied,” writes Leo Pfeffer in Church State and Freedom (Beacon Press, 1967).

There was an unhealthy interweaving of church and state during Jefferson’s day. His answer to this problem went far beyond the First Amendment’s prohibitions against the government establishing a state religion or forbidding a citizen to hold particular religious views. Jefferson’s concept of “separation of church and state” (it was he who first used the term) forbade any intersecting of religion and government at all. So extremely did he view this separation that he refused to call any national days of thanksgiving or prayer because to do so would violate the separation. Historians say of the period during and immediately after Jefferson’s time: “The country was less specifically ‘Christian’ than of any time before or since.” It is well within the mark to say that the prevalence of pluralistic secular humanism as the prominent religion in America owes its existence, to some degree, to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson.

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Choosing A Father

My purpose had not been to drag the honored name of Thomas Jefferson through the mud, but rather to caution Christians not to honor him for the wrong reasons. Those who have much to teach us about government and politics sometimes have very little to teach us spiritually or theologically.

None of us gets to choose our biological father. But we are able to choose our spiritual models. Let us choose men and women who have consistently held to the beliefs and practices of the historic Christian faith and have fleshed out those beliefs in a life of Christ-honoring righteousness and purity.

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